The Minnesota Lynx rolled into Climate Pledge Arena on Thursday night fresh off a win over the Seattle Storm back home Minneapolis two days sooner, looking to build on a poor defensive performance and win their fifth game in seven outings.
Instead, they found themselves in a track meet that quickly evolved into a wild ride that rewarded fans who stayed up well after 11 PM in Minnesota to watch.
After she game-saving play after game-saving play to keep the Lynx within striking distance throughout the second half and down the stretch of the fourth, Minnesota superstar forward Napheesa Collier had another opportunity late in overtime what she did all night: make life hell for any Storm driver in the paint.
That stop kept the Lynx alive. Then, Collier corralled an offensive rebound off a missed 3-pointer, earning a jump ball, which she won, prompting a timeout from Minnesota Head Coach Cheryl Reeve with 17.5 seconds to play. Enter Diamond Miller.
The No. 2 overall pick in April’s WNBA Draft made an excellent cut to create a passing lane for Lindsay Allen, who delivered a timely bounce pass to the rook in stride on a furious drive to the rim.
Then, it was Kayla McBride’s turn to make her mark on the game in the biggest moments. Watch the way McBride shades Storm star Jewell Loyd away from the basket and forces Seattle guard Ivana Dojkić to throw a difficult pass over the top.
Even once Loyd catches it, McBride doesn’t let her defensive intensity slip. She makes Loyd know she’s there, and forces a mental mistake from the WNBA’s leading scorer to give Minnesota its second chance to win the game at the buzzer.
“We gotta talk about that last defensive possession. I mean, K-Mac back in the game in our place defensively on Jewell, and that possession, her making sure that it wasn’t an easy catch,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus postgame, with a chuckle. “You don’t want to let them just get into what they’re trying to run. Diamond had good ball pressure, K-Mac didn’t let Jewell cut to the basket, forced a bad pass or a tough pass, I should say, over the top and then you know things were just hectic for them at that point. So, what a massive defensive play.”
After turning it over on the final Lynx possession of regulation, Collier wasn’t going to let the defense beat her in the same situation twice.
Following Tuesday’s Lynx win over the Storm, I asked Collier about her mid-post game taking a leap to the next level.
“I’m really confident in that area,” she said. “I mean, if I had to hit a game-winner, that’s where I’m going, is in the post.”
And on Thursday, her very next game? Collier called her shot with a game-winner in the mid-post, her first ever buzzer-beater to win a game.
“First of all, I was open because Mac, like she came off of the fake so hard that it made my defensive person jump to her a little bit and freeze. So that’s what allowed me to get open,” Collier told Canis. “And then, I mean, like I told you, that is where I want to be if I have to take a game-winner, and I missed the first one so I’m like, ‘I gotta make this one.’”
Let’s get into the takeaways.
A Napheesa Collier Performance for the Ages
The MVP conversation has been reserved for superstars on superteams. But after her performance on Thursday, coming in the aftermath of a career-high 33-point outburst on Tuesday, Napheesa Collier should absolutely be part of that conversation.
You can certainly make an argument that no player in the league has been more valuable to their team’s success or less replaceable than Collier. Phee has put the Lynx on her back all month, overcoming the losses of Miller, Jess Shepard (illness), Tiffany Mitchell (wrist) and Aerial Powers (ankle) and dragging her team to the finish line of games to secure wins.
The two-time All-Star is third in the league in scoring (22.4 PPG) on 49.2/34.6/87.9 shooting splits and the Lynx have a -20.46 net rating while Collier is on the bench, per PBP Stats. As a result, Reeve played Collier all 45 minutes tonight, a career-high, during which the veteran forward did absolutely everything on the floor.
Back-side rim protection help on drivers. Blocking shots. Fronting the post. Deflecting entry passes. Boxing out. Getting her hands on offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive. Forcing turnovers. Scoring big buckets when the Storm were building a game-shifting run. Taking over in the clutch. You name it, Collier did it.
Collier scored 31 points on 11/21 shooting (and 8/9 on free throws), grabbed eight rebounds, racked up five assists, blocked a career-high six shots, and also came away with a steal. Phee joined Candace Parker (who did so in 2008) as the only players in league history to record at least 30 points, five rebounds, five assists and five blocks in a WNBA game.
So, what stood out most about Collier’s performance?
“Will,” Reeve told Canis. “There are a lot of great players [in the history of our league]. I think that speaks to what Phee was feeling about the game and the way she imposed her will in every facet of the game.”
The last play was a good example.
“I was concerned on the last play just how much attention she was gonna get because we were just basically having to run everything through Phee,” Reeve explained. they didn’t bite on the handoff at all, as Ezi didn’t. Phee just made a good move. Ezi went down a little bit, Sami came over to help, and Phee was able to shoot over the top of her in just a really poised way.
“Phee said she appreciated a second chance. It didn’t go well for us at the end of regulation. So she said, ‘All I needed was a second chance.’ And you know, obviously we’ve seen Phee make that shot. It’s a really pretty shot.”
Collier’s teammate and fellow veteran leader, Kayla McBride, couldn’t have been happier to for the former UCONN star.
“I was just telling her in the hallway, I’m just so proud of her, because you know it’s not easy coming back after having Mila, and doing all these things, and having to push yourself in the offseason. Like, nobody sees any of that. You guys just see her now,” McBride told Canis, sitting beside Collier on Zoom.
“I think that her evolution and just what she’s been able to do in the beginning of the season has been amazing. I’ve just been happy to be out there with her, pushing her, doing everything I can to help make it easier for her because teams are going to change their scouting report. Teams are gonna give her different looks, and just being able to be that sidekick just being somebody out there supporting her has been great. But her games these last couple games have been amazing to watch and amazing to be part of.”
The moment was great enough for the incredibly humble, usually-deflective-of-credit Collier to talk about her journey back from giving birth to her daughter Mila last May.
“There’s always building to be done, but I feel really good. I mean, like Mac said, this has been my hardest offseason just coming back. And so being able to push past like where I was my last season, which was 2021, and to get better, it was like a sprint for me,” Collier said in response to a question about whether or not she felt back in rhythm.
“So, I am proud of myself and the work that I put in and I’m glad that it’s showing on the court, because I feel like I worked my butt off in the offseason so I’m glad it’s paying off a little,” she added with a smile.
The Quintessential Kayla McBride Game
Kayla McBride is no stranger to overcoming adversity. The 31-year-old is a beloved veteran both internally and externally on two continents because she’s tough as nails and never lets one side of the ball affect her play on the other.
Entering play on Tuesday, McBride was shooting a career-low 29.0% from 3 and below 40% from the floor for the first time since 2017 — both very surprising numbers given how well she played in the EuroLeague all winter. McBride in the two games since then has scored 37 points on 48.0/47.1/83.3 shooting splits while playing stifling defense on the best scorer in the league.
“We needed her. And from her standpoint, I think what we were really confident in is, there’s gonna be a correction. [Her shooting numbers were] not what [was] going to happen over the course of the season. So you’re just waiting for the correction to happen,” Reeve told Canis. “She has a great belief in herself. ... But her defense was equally as good as her shot-making.”
The 11-year vet was a stabilizing force for a group that needed it on Thursday. She made two big 3s in a second quarter that got off the rails as a result of the Storm’s break-neck pace, and scored eight pivotal third quarter points that prevented Seattle from blowing the game open after an 11-2 start to the half.
“I feel like I was being a little bit passive, getting in my head a little bit too much. I know who I am as a player. It’s law of averages, you know? I know how to get myself back,” McBride told Canis postgame.
“I talked to Cheryl before the last Seattle game and she was just like, ‘Let it fly, like have fun.’ I was shooting more stressed than just shooting to make it. And, just having that mindset out there and knowing that, Coach has my back, that my teammates have my back. Like I said, it happens, you know? I didn’t get down on myself. I just kept shooting.”
Minnesota’s 6-9 record is even more encouraging when you consider McBride hasn’t played close to her best basketball yet this season. But the team’s 5-2 record over the last seven games is exemplary of ceiling this team has when the three-time All-Star is defending at an incredibly high level; and the last two games show just how potent this offense can be when Collier, Miller and McBride are all feeding off each other. McBride’s shooting gravity unlocks space for Collier and Miller to drive through, and the way opposing defenses try to pack the paint and slow down drives frees up McBride to let it fly from deep.
While McBride’s shooting will wax and wane this season, her impact is undeniable. As a steady, competitive veteran leader, she communicates defensively, leads in huddles, and even calls plays at times, like this one with the game in the balance:
“K-Mac, she made the play call, she got them in it, and we executed. It was a big, big bucket that we got Phee on,” Reeve explained postgame. “I just think that [McBride and Collier are] coming into timeouts and they’re talking and they’ve been there. ... We just had our heads about us which was great to see.”
Rookies Shine in High-Leverage Moments
It’s safe to call the Lynx one of, if not the biggest winners of the 2023 WNBA Draft.
Reeve and General Manager Clare Duwelius came away with an ultra-dynamic, two-way franchise cornerstone in Miller at No. 2, an all-around, 6-foot-5 center who already plays like a veteran in Dorka Juhász at No. 14, and acquired the most coveted draft-and-stash prospect in the class at No. 12 in 6-foot-5 unicorn center Maïa Hirsch, who won’t join the team until 2024 or 2025.
Miller and Juhász showed phenomenal resolve in a big win on Thursday night.
Coming off a career-high 18-point night in the two teams’ first matchup of the week, Miller shot out of a cannon early, scoring six of the team’s first 10 points and was very activity both defensively and in transition, but didn’t score in the second quarter and took her frustration out on the defensive end. Reeve kept a watchful eye on her prized rookie, and had a quicker hook on Miller as a result.
An early foul followed by a pair of poor defensive possessions landed Miller on the bench, but she responded in a major way in a short stint to close the quarter, scoring five points in the final 58 seconds to tie the game entering the fourth. After then opening the scoring with a pair of free throws in the fourth, Miller picked up her fourth foul and sat for the next four minutes; on her first offensive possession, she went back to the free throw line. Miller missed the first and was visibly frustrated. Then, Collier and McBride went to talk to her.
“For example, on the free throw, like when she missed a free throw, I know it’s really high pressure and she puts a lot of pressure on herself. And I was just telling her like, ‘Shake it off. I mean, that’s how basketball is, you have to go on to the next one. You have to play, play by play. You can’t be thinking about what just happened,’” Collier said.
“I’m really proud of her, because she like, it’s just her personality. My personality is naturally more calm, so it’s easier for me to do that. That’s not her natural personality. So, I was really proud of her to be able to kind of recognize that and bring herself in because it’s not always easy.”
Miller unfortunately picked up her fifth at the 3:05 mark and sat for the rest of regulation. But Reeve put her faith in Miller to start overtime, and it paid off. Miller’s defensive pressure on the perimeter was tremendous and the rookie scored the biggest bucket of the game to that point on the game-tying layup in traffic with 11.2 seconds left.
“We’re still allowing [the rookies] to be themselves. And I mean, Diamond just hit one of the biggest shots probably in her young career, to tie the game. So giving her the confidence to do that, but also just allowing her to go through her [learning] process as well,” McBride said.
Collier credited Miller for her pressure on the entry pass on the Storm’s final possession of the game. On the other end, Miller scored a career-high 19 points (breaking her record set in the last game), grabbed four rebounds, dished two assists, blocked a pair of shots, and recorded two steals.
Juhász struggled a bit in the first half, as she had only two rebounds, wasn’t as quick with her offensive reads and wasn’t as consistent as she normally is as a screener. That all changed in the fourth quarter. The former UCONN star was incredible active on the glass; Juhász brought down five rebounds in the final quarter, and helped block out to create opportunities for Collier, Miller and Rachel Banham to crash the boards from the perimeter. Her defensive activity as a rim protector and rebounder was crucial in determining the outcome.
“Dorka, and I’ve said it, and I finally told her in-person what I say when she’s not around. Her emotional maturity [was great] to battle through what I thought was just an okay first half to really help us win that basketball game. It’s fun to have rookies to be a part of that,” Reeve said.”
“I think it’s a collective effort with Diamond, and even Dorka. We know that there’s going to be a learning curve for them. And games like tonight, the experience that they gained, the confidence they gained, the things that they learn in a moment like that when you go into overtime, and just the details of the game. And you see them going through that process, I mean, we’ve all been there,” McBride said postgame when asked about Collier’s calming impact on Miller.
“I think we both have more of a calming presence. We’re both super competitive, but I think they can feel that. We kind of let them do what they can but rein it in when we know we have to, but the coaches do a good job of that, too. And I think that’s why we’ve seen them be so successful because they’re kind of getting it all from a little bit from everywhere.”
The more Miller and Juhász experience intense live game situations, the better they’ll get, and Thursday night was a wonderful opportunity for the two rookies to get a taste of what it’s like to find success when the lights are brightest. They got knocked down, climbed up off the mat, remained composed in the biggest moments, and played pivotal roles in winning a wild, rollercoaster ride of a basketball game. They should be proud of that and Lynx fans should be excited to see which developmental ceilings the two rookies break next.
much love when we go OT.— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) June 30, 2023
Phee - 31 PTS / 8 REB / 5 AST / 6 BLK / 1 STL
KMac - 19 PTS / 6 REB / 3 AST / 2 BLK / 1 STL
Diamond - 19 PTS / 4 REB / 2 AST / 2 BLK / 2 STL
Dorka - 11 PTS / 8 REB / 3 AST / 2 BLK / 1 STL pic.twitter.com/CY0SrNfsOB
The Lynx will travel to Phoenix today for a matchup with Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi and the last-place Mercury on Saturday night. Fans can catch the 9 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North Extra.